When history selects the trigger man for the latest round of air strikes in Iraq, the role ultimately may fall not to President Clinton but to Richard Butler.
That's because it was Butler's sharply critical report, delivered to meet a United Nations deadline, that chiefly led Clinton to order the attacks that began Wednesday, bad timing or not.
Little known to most of the world beyond fleeting television clips featuring his broad, jowly face and his Australian accent, Butler quickly earned a tough-guy reputation among his Iraqi adversaries after taking over in July 1997 as executive chairman of UNSCOM, the U.N. special commission for dismantling Iraq's biological and chemical weapons programs.
Initially charmed, the Iraqis soon began calling him "Mad Dog" once it became apparent he would be just as determined as his Swedish predecessor, Rolf Ekeus, and far more blunt in his criticism.
But to his colleagues in the global community of arms control advocates, Butler is equally known for his diplomatic skill -- as skilled at knowing when to back off as when to forge ahead.
"I think it's appropriate this [military] operation is named Desert Fox, because he has been like a fox," said Joseph Cirincione, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "He has acted very clever, and he has shown his teeth when he had to."
Butler, 56, came to his job from a long career of diplomatic and arms-control experience for Australia, spending the last few years of it within the halls of U.N. headquarters in New York.
Although known now as somewhat confrontational, he spent his first few days on the job in Iraq upsetting arms control hard-liners, as well as the U.N. inspectors who had already spent six years trying to ferret out Iraq's most closely held secrets.
Butler did so by announcing that he was "drawing a line" under UNSCOM's earlier troubles with Iraq and that he was willing to let Saddam Hussein and his ministers start afresh.
"A lot of people said, uh oh, and a lot of the inspectors were very unhappy," recalled David Kay, who'd had more than a few tense run-ins of his own with the Iraqis while leading caravans of arms inspectors around the country.
"But he learned the lessons and he learned them very quickly. And as (the Iraqis) lied, cheated and deceived him over time, Butler became more critical."
His criticism minced no words.
Of Tariq Aziz, Iraq's vice premier, Butler said it was time for him to "tell the truth for once in his life." Responding to disdainful comments of Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Butler blurted, "Too pathetic for words."
To some observers, it seemed at times as if Butler was back on the playing field, where as a young man he'd stiff-armed tacklers in games of Australian Football. It's like rugby, only more so.
"I think a little bit of that rubbed off on the way he deals with people. Bulling ahead, but not in an inappropriate way," said Larry Scheinman, who has known Butler for more than 30 years in the field of arms control and is now director of the Monterey Institute.
But if anyone was even more responsible for earning UNSCOM a "cowboy" reputation -- an image that Iraq began to use to its advantage last fall among sympathetic ears in Russia and France -- it was lead inspector Scott Ritter, 37, an American ex-Marine whose brashness eventually would elicit the diplomatic side of Butler.
Known for his intense commitment and detailed expertise, Ritter would fire up his inspection team with pep talks comparing them all to "alpha dogs," leaders of the pack who took no guff.
Ritter summarized one of those talks for the New Yorker, saying, "When we go to a site, they're gonna know we're there, we're gonna raise our tails and we're gonna spray urine all over their walls -- that's the equivalent of what we're doing. So when we leave a site they know they've been inspected."
Last August, in the face of stiffening Iraqi affront, the Clinton Administration and U.N. higher-ups decided it was time to tone it down, and with Butler's acquiescence the inspection teams backed off.
Ritter quit, and lashed out in protest in essays, in interviews and in testimony before Congress. Butler, in more delicate language than was his custom, begged to differ, praising Ritter's zeal while chiding him for getting the facts wrong.
Disgruntled members of Congress wanted answers, the Clinton administration wanted cover and the Iraqis wanted a semblance of respect. Butler gave it to them.
His strategy, Cirincione said, was to "Back off, isolate Iraq, and show even its supporters what this problem really was, and not allow this 'cowboy label' to stick [to UNSCOM]. And it worked. It's been done about as well as it could be done. I give very high marks to Richard Butler."
The tactics kept UNSCOM in business, but in November the inspectors again ran up against Iraqi refusals, despite having toned down their demands. That produced the standoff that, after some accommodation, nearly led to air strikes. Iraq forestalled an attack only with a last minute promise of no further restrictions.
And when UNSCOM returned, the blunt Richard Butler returned as well. And it was his report card to the United Nations, with its failing grades for Iraqi cooperation, that set the Wednesday bombings into motion.
"That report pulled the trigger," Cirincione said. And it shows that Butler "is effective, a man you don't want to mess with."
As for those that believe that any outbreak of warfare signals the failure of diplomacy, few seem to blame Butler.
"He's a superb diplomat. He's done exactly what he was tasked to do," said Thomas Graham Jr., a government arms control official for more than 30 years before retiring last year. "My impression with Saddam Hussein and his government is that you don't get far with polite language."
Pub Date: 12/19/98